Jeff Astrof has 100 days off. See how he spends them.

Day 32

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I got an email from a friend this morning that said, “If you’re stuck for something, I have a question:  how is this hiatus different from your other hiatuses? You’ve had 19 right? Maybe they’re not so different? Is it just length of time?”  I responded, “I have a question: mind your own damned business!”  I like the kind of joke that’s a shockingly incongruous response to a friend’s genuine innocuous concern.  I don’t get a lot of return emails.   While I appreciated my (hopefully not former) friend’s interest, I told him I like my days to unfold naturally and tell their own story without too much introspection or prodding, especially from an outside source.  In other words, “thanks but no thanks”.

Anyway, today as I took my dogs out for their morning choke, I decided, randomly and on my own with no prodding from an outside source, to reflect on how this hiatus was different from all other hiatuses (hiati?)  This was, after all, my 19th one.  As I see it, the only thing different about this hiatus from a random hiatus is that I’ve chosen to take stock of the time and document it.  In hindsight, this may be my last hiatus because I get so much work I’m consistently busy all next year, or this hiatus might be the One that Goes on Forever, although I don’t really let myself think it will be the latter.  Which is surprising, in a way, because while I try to think of myself as generally positive, I also oftentimes envision the worst possible scenario happening to my immediate family.  For example, this morning I assumed my wife had been murdered.  I know, it’s awful!  But I had good reason: she hadn’t returned two of my texts and her phone went straight to Voice Mail.  It turns out, she was just volunteering at the school, something she had mentioned to me that she was going to do, but which somehow didn’t stick to my teflon brain, but you could see why my mind went directly to murder.

For some reason, my mind doesn’t often go to those darkest of places when it comes to my career.  I think because I’m not mortally invested in having a job.  I’ve always had an unusual amount of confidence when it came to work.  When I left being an investment banker in New York in 1989 to come to LA to be a tv writer, I was buoyed by my closest friends and family who said, “You’re throwing your life away!  You’ll be back in two weeks!”  When my less close friends asked objectively, “what are you going to do if you don’t make it?” I answered honestly, “Why wouldn’t I make it?”  It had never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t make it.  I’ve always attributed that blind faith/psychotic naivety as a major reason why I did, in fact, make it.  In fact, the only time when I thought, “what if I don’t make it?” regarding my job was three years ago during the Writer’s Strike.

As I mentioned way back, maybe even day one, the Writer’s Strike was also, coincidentally 100 days long, but I didn’t know that at the time.  (As a side note, when I told people I was writing this journal, one of the most common responses was, “What makes you think you’ll only have 100 days off?”)  Not knowing how or if the strike would end made my time off during those 100 days that much more difficult– even the “good days” when I got a guy from the Sprinkler Fitter’s Union (Go Local 187!) to not cross my picket line– I started to worry about my future.  Is was this not knowing when my next pay check will come that had me for the first time, adjusting my life-style.  (I take my roll as breadwinner very seriously, probably because my father always took his role seriously).

I think, compared to my peers, that my wife and I live a fairly modest life style: we don’t have fancy cars, in fact, we both drive several year old hybrids (the Prius is the official car of the sitcom writer).  One think I’ve noticed now that we’re both off is that we drive both our cars at the same time to the same destination in case one of us has to peel off to do an errand, thus negating the benefit of the hybrid.  We live in a nice 90 year old house that lets in air and water and leaks money and take one family vacation every other year (which is coming up).   In fact, I’d say that I on average I make 5- 10% more than what I spend– which I guess is pretty good.  Two years ago after I had a particularly good year I approached my business manager– okay, fine so I have a business manager, I do that in case someone has to pay the bills if my wife gets murdered– and said cockily, “well– how are we doing?”  (I treat my business manager the same way I treat a doctor– I just don’t want to hear any bad news and want to get out of there as quickly as possible.  Scheduling a meeting with my business manager after a good year was like scheduling my physical after training for a marathon.)  My business manager looked at my paperwork and said, “You’re even.”  “I’m even what?”  “You’re even.  You finally paid off the money we had been borrowing– not including your mortgage or car payments– and you’re even.”  “But I had a good year!”  “Which is what brought you up to even.”  He then showed me expense after expense of the money that my house had eaten over the past 15 years, plus kids’ tuition (yes, they go to private school, but it’s private Jewish school– it’s wholesale!) plus charity (we give 10%) and agents and lawyer’s fees (15%) add in his fees (2.5%) and after 17 years in the business I was even.  I then asked the obvious question– so how do I get above even?  He said I had to either make more money or spend less.  I told him I would rather make more money.

The problem with the strike, of course, was that I couldn’t make more money and my house still had a voracious appetite.  We cut things like eating out in restaurants, didn’t take a vacation that year, avoided name brands (you get used to Cooka-Cola) and some other stuff that seemed to make a minor dent. We didn’t want to fire our housekeeper because, A: we were afraid of firing her and B: we didn’t think it was fair to fire her even when she was working out of her own home.  And I cut back, but did not cancel my training.  That’s because staying in shape was important to me.  In fact, the benefit of not working is that it lets you see what’s really important to you.  Even now, while I am confident I will work again (please God I better work again I just broke even!) I am cutting back on extraneous luxuries like having a dog walker.  By hiking the dogs myself, not only do I get the extra benefit of exercise, but I’m actually in essence making $50 a day.  So, really, I’m a professional dog walker (though no one who watches me choke my dogs up the hike is asking for my card).

This notion of priorities struck home today as Shawni and I were on our way to see our family therapist– the Expert.  Since we started seeing her, the dynamic around our house seems to have gotten a lot better– not that it was awful, Shawni’s instincts as a mother are remarkable, and let’s just say I’m breaking even now.  As we were getting in our separate cars to go to see the Expert, I told Shawni that I’d like to cut down the number of sessions from once a week to once a month.  The sessions are expensive and not much is covered by insurance.  Since we’re living on the salary of a dog walker right now, Shawni agreed that it sounded like a good plan.  And then we saw the Expert.  Without going into details I think the clinical term for what’s going on around my house is a “Looney Bin”.  Now, sure, my guess is a lot of families have little behaviors that might be considered odd– what kid doesn’t wash his hands 50-60 times a day?  But the good news is, with the Expert’s help, we can help make our family dynamic better.  Depending on what our priorities are.

So I guess, if I had to answer my friend’s question, the difference between this hiatus and the other hiatuses is that this hiatus I’m making it a priority to bring peace to my home.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to give my wife a well-deserved back rub.  Shawni?  Shawni?  SHE’S DEAD!!!  OH NO SHE’S DEAD!!  No, wait, she was in the bathroom.  Nevermind.


Written by 100daysoff

March 16, 2011 at 9:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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